Thanks to svmadelyn for coaxing and correction and taunting ith chocolate mousse, and lierdumoa for checking it over.
Strangerverse fic #6, per request of miss_porcupine and trobadora for the prompt of Rodney offworld and more military Sheppard. All other stories in the series here: The Stranger's Always You, Lessons, Second Watch, Corner, Goodbye, and prequel The New Order Sucks.
What You Can't Leave Behind
by jenn (email@example.com)
McKay, Sheppard/McKay (AU)
Rodney remembers Beckett's instructions like a voice in stereo in his head, running over and over; elevate the limb, cut away the material, and don't look up and watch Sheppard with his gun still aimed neatly over Rodney's head, despite a field-dose of morphine and a cracked femur.
Yes, the field really is everything Sam said it was. Teeth locked together, Rodney winds the pressure bandages around Sheppard's thigh while Sheppard talks into his radio in a hoarse voice.
Wiping his blood slick hands clean (-er) on his BDUs, Rodney reaches for his gun and waits for Sheppard's almost-shaking hand to come down, hazel eyes glassier than Rodney likes to think about. "I'm watching," Rodney says unnecessarily as Sheppard lowers himself back to the ground on his back. He doesn't put his gun down, but at least he starts acting like someone wounded and not someone with a particularly annoying papercut.
"Anyone?" Sheppard says sharply, starting to pull his leg off Rodney's lap. Rodney locks a hand over the bandage and takes a vicious satisfaction in the way Sheppard winces, the way he hadn't while Rodney was rooting around in the wound for a large and not terribly intact bullet. Son of a bitch.
"I think they lost us," Rodney answers grimly. The trees sway over their heads, blocking any possible aerial view, and stone on one side and heavy bushes on the other screen them fairly well from the rest of the area. "Stop moving or I'll give you another dose."
"Too dangerous," Sheppard slurs, touching his radio. "Report."
There's a garbled sound from the radio and Sheppard frowns, pulling it from his ear. "Rodney. Check yours."
Not any better. Well, shit. Of course. "They're scrambling us." Rodney reaches for his scanner, then remembers dropping it to go for his gun, about a beat after Sheppard went down in a tangle of vines and blood. "Teyla and Dex--"
"Orders are to go back to the 'gate if anything goes wrong," Sheppard says, and pushes himself up, in a move that's got to be proof of insanity. Swinging his legs down, he shakes a little, then sets the safety on the P-90. "We need to--"
"Stay *here*. Restless natives. Instant death. Or is the morphine screwing what little mind you possess?" It's surprisingly easy to start channeling McKay at times like this.
Sheppard snorts. "And here you worried you couldn't do field work. Help me up. I need to figure out how far we are from the gate." One arm out, Sheppard waits patiently until Rodney reholsters his gun and stands up, pulling Sheppard to his feet as gently as he can, catching his breath at the weight across his shoulders. Through the tac vest, Rodney can feel the press of what feels like grenades, assorted military paraphernalia, and the hilt of John's knife.
He can also feel how Sheppard's body trembles and has to bite his tongue against saying a goddamn thing.
"Rodney?" John says, and Rodney locks a hand around Sheppard's wrist and takes two short steps toward the screen of bushes, bracing himself as Sheppard shifts his weight, peering through. After a few seconds, Sheppard lets the brush fall back, both legs going at once. "Fuck."
Rodney holds his ground, but just barely. "Can I put you down now?" Rodney grinds out, and ignoring Sheppard, drags him back to the rocks, getting him down as easily as possible. Fresh blood is already seeping through the bandages. Getting back on his knees, Rodney checks for further damage.
"It's a flesh wound," Sheppard says. Rodney glares him to silence.
"Shut. Up." A few seconds of search bring up a rock small enough to roll easily, and Rodney gingerly places Sheppard's bad leg on it, flashing on Dr. Beckett's instructions on care of injured Colonels, which happens far too often for Rodney's peace of mind.
"It's not always like this," Rodney says, but he doesn't actually believe it. He's two thirds through McKay's logs. "No, it's always like this. You throw yourself in front of bullets like you're made of Teflon or something--"
"And then lie around looking *pathetic* while the rest of us do the actual work--Christ. How did you ever get approved to come on the expedition anyway? Suicidal tendencies considered a plus?"
Sheppard freezes, so briefly Rodney can only feel it in the muscles beneath his hand, and maybe it's the air or the fact that insanity's catching, because it's been years since he's said something that stupid. Sheppard's casual again without so much as a questionable blink of eyes. "Something like that."
"I didn't mean--" Well, he did mean, but not like that. Leaning back into the stone, Rodney stares up at the slowly darkening sky. "I think it's going to rain."
Sheppard squints, peering up, the muscle beneath Rodney's hand tensing. "How appropriate." Then the green eyes go glassy, pupil widening into a chasm, before he goes limp.
Rodney feels his hands begin to shake as he looks around them, at the overcrop of rock that makes nothing as useful as a cave, but it might keep them out of the rain. Forcing his hands still, he pushes himself up and grabs his field kit.
Dr. Weir had never been very active on Atlantis; the post, science and research only, had run itself with startling efficiency. The military, led by Colonel Sumner, had minimal interaction with the scientists, Weir their buffer, and outside the weekly staff meeting, Rodney can't actually remember carrying on a conversation with her. He knows John never did, his anti-social tendencies familiar enough that even Weir hadn't tried to engage him more than a few times early in the expedition.
There are things he remembers though; her easy smile. Her arguments with Sumner. The way she stood on her office balcony and watched the ocean before every meeting, coffee cup in hand. Sometimes, she dealt with heads of state from other planets, but not often. There was enough on Atlantis to explore, she had said, not looking at Sumner. Going off-world was by necessity only.
She's *different* here, in ways that startle him every day. Thinner in a way that makes him wonder if she eats enough, lines that appear nowhere but in her eyes, the tight curve of a mouth that doesn't smile in the same way. "Rodney," she says, and Rodney makes himself look up, meet her eyes, not flinch from the sympathy on her face, the way she smiles with gentle understanding. "He'll be fine."
Rodney takes the coffee she offered, sipping to avoid answering her unspoken questions; how are you? Do you want to talk about it? "I know." Beckett had sent him out of the infirmary with Teyla on his heels, clutching a bottle of painkillers for his sprained ankle, led to his room like a child. She'd left, eventually, and Rodney had finished his report on his laptop and sent it to Weir.
Why he's here is anyone's guess. Taking another drink, he watches her eyes flicker to the screen of her laptop, mouth tilting in a thoughtful frown. "Your report is short, Dr. McKay," she says slowly, and he thinks of the way her mouth curves when she says it, like she's used to another name entirely.
"Other than Sheppard indulging his taste for reckless self-endangerment? Not much to report." Rodney tries not to sink further into his chair--John's bad posture had, unfortunately, been catching, and Rodney'd never gotten over it.
"I understand you were pinned for several hours," she says, and Rodney feels himself start to flush. "Was the Colonel unconscious the entire time?"
Rodney doesn't have the luxury of looking away. "Yes," he says, looking into her eyes, daring her to catch the lie.
"Rodney," Sheppard whispers, a breath so soft that Rodney barely heard it. Swiveling around from his view of the rain pouring steadily only inches away, he sees Sheppard trying to lever himself up against the rocky wall.
"Stay down," Rodney hisses, shifting to his knees to crawl across the damp stone, reaching for Sheppard's shoulders, easing him back to the ground. Sheppard's hand closes loosely over his wrist.
"Where--" The green eyes flicker open, pupils drowning the iris in glossy black.
"Cave. Your leg's--"
"Right." Sheppard starts to sit up, wincing slightly, fresh bleeding wetting the bandage again. Before he gets an elbow placed, Rodney pulls him back down, pinning the slender shoulders to the ground. "Ouch. Rodney. What the fuck--"
"You're *concussed* and you're injured. Stay the fuck *down*." Keeping one hand on Sheppard's chest, Rodney touches his radio. Still static. "Stay down and don't move or I swear I'll knock you out myself."
Sheppard frowns, looking like he wants to say something else. "I don't--" He stops short, pale and strained and fragile in a way that John never had been, never could have been. Military commander, Rodney thinks, staring down at the thin hand still wrapped around a gun like it's a lifeline, the pallor of lost blood. "Where are we?"
"Jesus." Morphine was apparently a bad idea. Leaning over, Rodney checks his pupils and his pulse, because he can't think of a damned thing to do. "We're on a mission. You got shot. Teyla and Dex, I assume, are going to get reinforcements. Rescue."
Sheppard draws a deep breath, with a catch that makes Rodney suddenly wonder if there's something rib-related he needs to worry about. The bandage is distressingly red and getting redder. Artery, he thinks, then. No. Artery, he'd be dead.
"I need--" Sheppard makes a motion with his gun hand, and Rodney lunges to disarm him before something unfortunate happens. Tucking it to the side, and well out of Sheppard's most enthusiastic possible lunge, Rodney unwraps another set of bandages. "Rodney--"
"You're concussed. Just lay down and keep breathing like a normal person, okay?" A quick search turns up his knife, and Rodney holds the bandage with his teeth to make the cut, hands shaking so badly that he thinks he might just lose a finger. Sheppard tries to move, and Rodney gives up, dropping his weight on Sheppard's good leg to keep some amount of immobilization. "Stay still. God, have you always been this bad at listening?"
Sheppard smiles, but Rodney's pretty sure that wherever Sheppard is, it's not this cave. Another bandage on his leg, another check of his head--which is spectacularly swollen but the skin's unbroken, which Rodney's willing to count as a plus. Rodney strips his jacket off, tucking it beneath Sheppard's neck, more careful than he wants to be, more careful than he needs to be, running gentle, quick fingers across Sheppard's jaw before he can make himself pull away.
"I need to--" Sheppard coughs softly, and Rodney finds himself unable to look away, watching for blood. Nothing. Thank God. "Radio Ford."
For a second, Rodney's sure he heard wrong. Because his day can't possibly get any worse. Leaning back against the wall, Rodney shuts his eyes and gives himself a second--just this second of perfect silence and perfect peace, a second to imagine himself back in his lab, on a different Atlantis, a different world, a different universe where he'd never seen raw, ripped muscle, torn skin, glimpses of white bone in red flesh, was never expected to know how to deal with a stoned, injured commander on an alien planet in the middle of a hostile galaxy.
He's never *been* these things, and suddenly, he wonders why in the name of God he thought he could be.
"Our radios are out," Rodney hears himself say calmly, reaching out to rest a hand on Sheppard's shoulder. "They're coming."
Heightmeyer's one of the few people on Atlantis that doesn't drive Rodney nuts. Maybe all those years of studying all the ways the mind can be fucked up gives you a certain amount of appreciation of a mind that came with a non-existent world that once existed.
But he thinks, just maybe, that he could have lived without it today. Though he has to admit, to himself if no one else, that he gets as much a kick out of startling her with non-McKay behavior as he does with everyone else.
"So how have you been feeling?"
Rodney considers the couch he's laying on--early on, he'd come to like the entire concept of taking this to the clichéd place and just laying down, relaxing on Ancient leather substitute and talking about how the voices in his head are the dead he spent three days with before he'd come here, how he'd forgotten how to sleep and how to eat and how to stand up, kneeling with the bodies of his colleagues and friends and lover surrounding him, telling her how John had fucked him over and it would be a few lifetimes worth of rage before he'd forget that he'd been left behind.
"Do you think I should have died there?" Rodney asks, like he always does, just because it makes her twitch.
Unfortunately, she's gotten used to him. "On the planet?"
Rodney almost straightens, forcing himself to stay down, stay relaxed, all the ways he'd learned from John to lie with his body, all the years of government and military work teaching him how to hide and deflect and pretend.
She takes his silence as something significant, from the way her pen skids over the laptop. "How many hours were you and Sheppard trapped, Dr. McKay?" she asks, and Rodney blows out a breath in annoyance.
"Six hours." Six very long, wet hours, that Rodney would do a lot to forget. "Colonel Sheppard was out of it most of the time."
He catches Heightmeyer's nod from the corner of his eye and wishes to God he'd skipped his appointment today.
"He wasn't unconscious the entire time," Rodney hears himself say, and somewhere in him, he wonders if concussions are contagious, because he didn't mean to say that.
Rodney grits his teeth. ""He--he thought we were somewhere else. He thought I was someone else." He lets that settle for a second, for her to get it so he doesn't have to say it. "You'd think he'd know the difference."
"You'd think," she says, her voice soft, "considering Dr. McKay would faint at the sight of blood."
Rodney jerks his head around, almost smiling. "You're kidding."
Her head tilts. "Is it important to you? That he knows the difference?"
And he walked right into that one.
"No. Maybe. Sometimes. I know the difference," he says, and God, does he. He knows it with every breath and every look and every necessary touch. He always knows. "I just wonder if he--wants there to be a difference. If that's why--if he even cares."
"Rodney--" Sheppard, in his weird freaky concussed and injured state, is still stronger than he looks, and far faster than Rodney ever gave him credit for. "We have to--the Wraith--"
"Are coming," Rodney drones, pushing Sheppard back down. "Yes yes yes. Death, destruction on two feet, but you know what? Magical elephant people will defeat them! Which makes no sense, and do you know why? You're *concussed*. Stay down. Help will be here soon."
Sheppard gives him a betrayed look, like Rodney gives a shit, reaching absently for his head, fingertip brushing across the bruising. "I don't--"
"*Remember*. You don't remember anything useful." Outside the overhang, rain's been pouring like the planet's trying to set an intergalactic meteorological record. The slight upward incline of their ground is the only thing saving them from an uncomfortable and frankly gross death by pneumonia. "This is PX1-97R, we were here on a trade mission, the natives want to sell us or eat us or turn us into horses to pull carts, I have no idea but the word for the day is *hostile*. You were shot and you're concussed. Teyla and Dex presumably went to get help, though I'm beginning to suspect there's a tea party going on instead. You need to stay down." The latest bandage isn't staining as fast, but Rodney can see the progress if he looks away for too long.
For a few seconds, Rodney thinks that Sheppard is approaching unconscious again--might be bad for concussions, but keeping him still with a full body lunge is getting old and Rodney saw him wince last time, hand going to his ribs in a way that made Rodney's teeth clench in worry. Not broken, Rodney told himself, skimming Sheppard's body with his fingers beneath the thin, damp t-shirt. Not yet. And not going to be, because Rodney's not up to dealing with anything else today.
Sheppard's hand touches his knee, and Rodney fights the urge to jerk away, because it's too familiar, the spread of long, elegant fingers and press of palm, too easy to lean into and too easy to trust. When he looks, Sheppard's staring back at him with John's wide green eyes, confusion swimming in their depths. "Something--" he stops, licking his lips. "You're different."
Rodney bites down on his tongue before he can say something stupid.
"They'll be here soon," he says, and Sheppard blinks back, familiar and weirdly vulnerable. Patting the thin hand, Rodney shifts it onto Sheppard's thigh. "They're coming and we'll be okay. We'll be--" Turning his head, he catches movement, lighting creasing the sky in vivid white, blinding bright, and a body that isn't like any he knows, big and thick, wet leather and eyes that stare into Rodney's with shock before his hand goes down to his belt, and Rodney has just enough time to suck in a breath, hand fumbling for his belt and the gun he can barely use, sees the man's weapon draw up with exquisite slowness and take aim, directly at his head.
Rodney lets his hand fall limp and closes his eyes for the sound of a bullet.
Teyla's got him on his back on the floor before he remembers he's armed.
"You are not paying attention," she chides, offering a hand. Rodney thinks about it before letting her pull him to his feet, surprised as always by her easy strength. It's too easy to forget. "Again?"
Rodney nods, stepping back with an abbreviated bow, trying to find the right position for the sticks. It's strange and unfamiliar, and he's never had good body memory, but he admits that the bruising from each session is remarkable in its ability to make him learn. His bruises these days are never in the same place twice.
They're going through the simplest exercises, what she and Sheppard use to warm up, first at quarter speed to refresh his memory, then at half, telegraphing each move so he can learn each counter before taking it back up to speed. Over the last few weeks, he's sought her out more and more, the purity of physical exercise, the concentration required to keep up, settling his mind in a way that even equations can't compete with.
A turn, catching her on the downswing, circling as she nods, moving to full speed, still simple, still what mainland children use the first time they step into a circle and learn this, as much art as defense.
"You are improving," she says when he blocks another swing, and Rodney thinks of watching her with her students, with Ronon, with Sheppard, the way she adapts to their different levels, and comes back with a swing he memorized watching Sheppard.
She ducks easily, but he likes to think he surprised her.
"Much better," she says, twirling a stick idly as she watches him. He breathes out, remembering Sheppard the last time he watched them, the way they moved, fast and bright, the way she smiled and corrected his form, her sticks slapped his ass, the pure enjoyment they both took in this, simple sticks and quick movements, no time for thought or worry, just this moment, this second.
He catches her next pass, swinging out of her way, ducking the next swing, faster than he's used to, remembering Sheppard's laughter when she took him to his knees, the way he rolled away and came up with a smile, remembered how easy she made it, made Sheppard, that after he could almost forget that this wasn't his world.
"Dr. McKay?" she says, and she's never used any other name for the man she knows.
"Rodney," he answers, watching for the next swing, her next lunge, trying to learn her body's tells the way she learned his. "Just Rodney."
She nods, swinging, and he moves too slow, stumbling away with a sore thigh and bit lip. Licking away the blood, he turns back. "Again."
"Rodney," she says, eyes dark. "Perhaps you should--"
After a second, she nods, starting off full speed this time--no time to think, to wonder, to worry, just breathe as she taught him, resting as he watches, dodging when he has to, taking every hit with grit teeth and a counterattack, using everything he's learned from her, everything he's watched, sloppy and too slow and unable to give up a single inch, not if he doesn’t have to, not when he doesn't want to.
"Rodney," she says, but he shakes his head, wiping his mouth on the edge of his shirt, bright with blood, another ruined piece of clothing, just like the uniform dumped on his bathroom floor, swinging at her with all the grace of a five year old and watching her dodge back too easily, but he can't give up, even though this is twice as long as he's ever gone and he can feel a stitch in his side forming between his ribs, breathing harsh and dry in his throat. "We should--"
He'll say this for her; she takes him at his word.
Knowing you're outmatched and outclassed really isn't a deterrent, Rodney thinks, turning to take a stroke on his thigh, knowing he'll limp later, honestly not giving a shit when he pulls back and makes contact, a glancing blow on her forearm, catching the downstroke of her other stick with a jarring pain he can feel from instep to groin. He can't move fast enough to get out of her way, ducking the first stick and feeling the second in a blow that brings him to his knees, shivering from the contact, knowing it should hurt and unable to understand why it doesn't. Her stick crosses elegantly across his throat, pulling him back into a bend that would once have sent him to a chiropractor, but her voice is gentle. "Give."
He doesn't know how. "No."
She pulls harder, pressure across his throat not quite enough to obstruct breathing, but enough for him to feel it. One hand finds the padded floor, bracing himself against her pull. "*Rodney*."
She blocks the stick he brings up in a wild hit--yeah, he hadn't thought that would work--and now breathing's hard, bending him against her knee, nowhere to go to relieve the pressure, and all he has to do is--all he has to say is--
"No," he breathes, closing his eyes, and for a second, he remembers a gun pointed at his head and his empty hands, rain falling around them and Sheppard unconscious behind him.
Then he opens his eyes and tilts his head back enough to look at her. "I can't."
The gunshot, as it turns out, comes from behind him, and Rodney opens his eyes to watch the man fall, slow and heavy, splashing into the mud, a lump that doesn't look like anything that had ever been alive.
Rodney stares until a hand settles on his shoulder, and he turns when he's told by strong fingers, looks into Sheppard's face, pale and dirty.
Next thing, he's leaning back against solid rock and his jaw aches like-- "Did you hit me?" Touching, he thinks he can feel a bruise forming. "What the--"
"Gun." Sheppard says, looking a lot livelier than he had a few minutes ago. Rodney sees the gun still tight in one hand, the other pressing down on the bandage on his leg--for pressure or to clear his head, Rodney's not sure which one. "Come here."
"Not if you're going to hit me again. What the fuck was that?"
"What the fuck was *that*?" Blood's wet around Sheppard's fingers now; that bandage needs to be changed soon. "Were you--were you *waiting* for him to shoot in a clever strategy of thinking he'd *miss*? At that distance?"
Rodney reaches down blindly and finds his gun by instinct, by drill, and wonders why he couldn't feel it before. "Colonel--"
"If that's what you want--" Sheppard's teeth clench together--whatever inspired his burst of energy burns out as suddenly as it began, and he folds, collapsing against the rock with panted breath, other hand going to his side. Ribs. Shit. "Is that why you wanted on the team? An easy--"
"No." Sheppard's hand is soaked; Rodney gets on his knees, crawling to the pack, getting the first aid kit out and fumbling the bandage out. God knows where the knife is. "Lay down."
"Lay *down*," Rodney hears himself say in a voice he doesn't recognize. "Shut up." Grabbing Sheppard by the front of his vest, he turns him sideways, straddling his good leg, one hand on his chest. Rodney thinks Dr. Beckett might cry if he knew what Rodney considered good first aid technique. Tearing the bandage with his teeth, Rodney jerks Sheppard's hand away, not bothering to change the bandage this time, just looping it around the first one, hands shaking. "You--you're losing too much blood."
"Rodney." Sheppard sounds breathless.
"Your team," Rodney grits out between tearing tape. "The ones that went back. They always come back, right? You've never been--you never doubt that? That they'll come back for you?"
He looks up in time to see a thoughtful expression on Sheppard's face. "Once." A bloody hand closes on his wrist; Rodney stares down at the dirty fingers against his skin, tight and urgent and there's something in that Rodney should think about, but he can't think any farther than the next bandage, the next moment. . "Our team. Coming back. They'll come back."
Rodney stares into sincere green eyes and can't believe a word he says.
Elizabeth's hand covers his when he reaches for the coffee, fumbling, hot across his dirty wrist, reminding him of the shower he didn't take, the blood on his uniform, the taste of gunpowder and rain in his mouth. "Rodney."
He pulls away as she catches the cup, leaning across her desk to look into his eyes
"He'll wake up."
Sheppard might have a fever, might not, but he fights it now, making Rodney keep talking, keep him grounded, hand on his own leg to press and push out the pain that keeps his head clear, refusing the offered morphine, his other hand wrapped around Rodney's wrist.
Rodney talks. Tells him about the cold war in the labs that broke into armed conflict between the chemists and the botanists, armed with compost and hydrochloric acid that ended with armed neutrality. He tells Sheppard about Radek's grudging assistance in translating some of the more complex Ancient algorithms that on his Atlantis, Rodney had used daily to build a more efficient environmental system--"And the really annoying part is I kept forgetting that John hadn't done it already or I would have started this a while back." "Ancient computer languages? You're kidding." "You didn't come along on the expedition because you were pretty. Though that was a plus." "Huh."--dinner in the messhall with the biologists who almost put him to sleep talking about the reproductive abilities of Ancient whales, and his last training session with Teyla. He tells Sheppard about midnight on the east pier, where he went to watch the water, and the tallest spire of the city, where he liked to work at night, and how the physicists no longer made him want to ask the SGC if they chose only the worst and stupidest to come along for the one-way journey.
Sheppard's grip never relaxes, eyes flickering to keep conscious, lucid, and Rodney keeps talking, telling Sheppard about Atlantis, his Atlantis, the quiet scientific outpost in the middle of nowhere, a life delineated by the walls of his lab, the mess hall, their quarters; rare, sleepy afternoons on the mainland under the eye of bored Marines; fighting with John over allocation of resources and computer time, the high of pure research and pure discovery, with the only person on any world that could understand how amazing the universe really was.
He tells Sheppard what he misses--his lab and his colleagues and his quiet, his simple joy in his work and his life. And he tells Sheppard what he misses most is his partner, his best friend, the man who shared his bed, but more than that, that shared his work, his lab, who loved what they did with the same intensity, who woke him at impossible hours of the morning to help him test a theory and tracked him down during meals to fix a problem and that he fought with and loved and never thought he could live without, who left him behind in a dead city in a doomed galaxy.
When Sheppard's hand loosens, eyes drifting closed, Rodney's words trickle off on an indrawn breath as he reaches out to touch the cool skin of Sheppard's throat and feel for a pulse he thinks won't be there.
Sheppard's hand tightens at the first brush of skin on skin. Rodney lets out a breath that he had no idea he'd been holding, feeling Sheppard's fingers lace through his, holding tight. "M'okay," Sheppard says, voice thin and fragile, green eyes anything but. "You won't be left behind."
Heightmeyer watches when he paces, the windows bright and leaking golden morning sun into the room, pooling on the floor in a way that makes Rodney think of their--his cat, the cat, the cat left on an Earth that fell to the Wraith, is falling, will fall. Past, present, future, none he can know for certain, not without a quantum mirror and the kind of navigation skill that only the Ancients had ever possessed.
"Everyone died," he says abruptly, fighting the urge to look at her. "We've talked about this. I didn't watch them die, I just watched them dead. Very traumatizing, working through my issues, scared of the morgue and horror movies that involve cemeteries. Are we done yet?"
He can hear her making notes.
"How is the Colonel?"
Rodney stares into the sun. "He's still unconscious."
She makes another note.
"He won't wake up." And like that, it comes out, and he didn't even mean it to. Turning, he starts for the couch, stops, and he can smell blood all around him. "He looks--"
"How does he look, Rodney?"
Rodney's hands clench, blunt fingernails pressing into dull pain on the skin of his palm. He can still feel the gun in his hand.
"Like John." Like John, who chose his place and time and decided that Rodney's wasn't there, wasn't then. Head turned so the exit wound was hidden, like he knew that Rodney would be the one to find him, reach for him, hand coming away cold and clammy from the first brush of shaking fingers. "It's not like sleeping."
Sitting on the couch, Rodney watches her hands, the pen, the tablet, the fall of blonde hair the color of morning sunlight, bright and clear and easy. "Rodney?" she says softly, and he unclenches his hands, flattening them on his knees, staring at the single smear of blood from his palm. "Rodney, what happened on the planet?"
Bracing Sheppard against his body, Rodney shoulders his pack. He gave Sheppard a second dose, lower than the first--enough to take the edge off what has to be a spectacular headache and a leg that can't be any better.
"Keep cover," John says, voice low and slurring to hide the fact he's not getting enough air. "We're--close."
Rodney remembers how they got here--that tree, that Sheppard fell against before finding the tiny clearing, the rocky outcropping they hid in. There, where the bullet sank into Sheppard's thigh like a knife in warm butter. There, the first shot, just over Rodney's head, the one that started this entire mess. It's impossible to see, but he believes Sheppard's quiet directions, the instincts he's developing, believes it even when he sees unfriendly bodies and ducks behind brush, gun clenched in one hand.
He even thinks they'll make it the Stargate, in some fucked up part of his head, because Sheppard's not dead yet and Rodney's not either. The rain drips into the collar of his shirt, running cold down the center of his back, BDUs chafing at his waist and inner thighs. He hates the world so much that he can barely think, and then Sheppard's breath warms his neck. "So. Is field work everything you hoped for?"
Rodney turns his head to stare. "You're nuts."
Sheppard grins, eyes hazy and dark. Pain, drug reaction, rolling in endorphins, who the fuck knows. "Yeah. I know. Left. We're almost there."
Nuts. Rodney feels his cold mouth stretch in an unwilling smile, because this is John fucking Sheppard limping along dying of blood loss and still acting like this is everything that's ever been normal. They make it through thin-water puddles, slick mud beneath the surface, deceptively solid soil that crumbles at the first touch of a boot, and the rain never lets up for a second.
From here, through the thick grey, Rodney can just make out a familiar glow. "The wormhole's open," he says, bracing Sheppard against a tree, crouching to check his leg. Soaked straight through. "So I'm thinking that we're fucked."
Sheppard snickers softly, reaching dreamily for his gun. Rodney catches his hand, trying to keep the incredulous expression off his face. He knows he's failing spectacularly by the way Sheppard frowns. "You're going to take them all?"
Sheppard checks the clip thoughtfully. "Yes."
Reaching down, Rodney touches his own gun, staring past Sheppard's shoulders to the men surrounding the gate. "Okay." What the fuck. Checking the clip blindly, Rodney tries to get used to the feeling of it against his palm, cool and damp against his skin. "What's the plan? And if it is a clever plan of luring them away so I can make a break for it? You're going to win the stupidest person award on Atlantis. I'll crown you with the hat myself." Something in him starts to shake. The men in front of the gate stand between Sheppard and Dr. Beckett, and suddenly, they mean so much less than they did before.
"How many?" Sheppard says, like he's asking about dinner.
Rodney shakes himself, counting. "Ten."
"Cool." Sheppard turns, aims, and shoots, ducking back down.
Somewhere distant begins shouting. Sheppard leans his head back into the tree, eyes closing. "Nine."
Rodney feels Teyla loosen her stance, face softening, and widens his eyes. "Rodney," she says gently, and Rodney leans, getting the stick with both hands and throws his whole weight forward, feeling her shocked surprise when her grip loosens, and rolls into a clumsy crouch, holding the stick he'd pulled from her hands, meeting surprised brown eyes while he gropes for a gun that doesn't exist.
Slowly, she stands up, crossing to pull him to his feet, forehead pressed to his, fingers tight on his shoulders. Rodney closes his eyes, leaning into her body. "He's going to wake up."
Rodney's body is Sheppard's balance, ballast, one hand on his shoulder, and half out of his mind from pain and drugs, he's still the best shot Rodney's ever seen.
Three down and seven left, but Rodney's finally worked out the plan, such as it is. There's no way for them to get to the gate, not with seven armed men. A Stargate has a thirty-eight minute window. Sheppard's betting that Atlantis is dialing constantly to establish a wormhole.
He's betting his life on not bleeding out for however long is left on this dial, betting it on Atlantis dialing in before the men here can get to the gate and dial out, betting all of this can occur before one of the fuckers finds them in their not-so-hidden hiding space in this insanely small area of woods.
Betting Rodney, his one and single backup and watch out, can see if someone's coming and tell him, and somehow that's the least sane part of all. Rodney's torn between watching the slow drip of blood from the soaked gauze on Sheppard's thigh, the creepily silent wood, and the fact that he's somehow supposed to know how to shoot a gun from target practice in the training room.
He's supposed to stand here and believe--*believe*--that the man with him isn't wrong, and somehow, he manages it, gritting his teeth at the grip on his shoulder, the taste of blood on his tongue, gun slippery and foreign in his hand.
"Field work," Rodney whispers when Sheppard leans out again, watching the grass around the gate. "Why did I think it was a good idea again?"
"Radek was driving you insane in the labs," Sheppard breathes, voice almost gone. The fingers on his shoulder tighten in what, in Sheppard's fucked up world, must be reassurance. "You were tired of everyone staring at you. You mentioned how hot the thigh straps were."
Rodney jerks his gaze up and wishes he hadn't. There are strain lines around Sheppard's mouth and he's dangerously pale, a grey tinge washing out everything that resembles life. There's blood around his mouth and when Rodney looks down, dusting his sleeve.
He's been hiding the coughs. "Sheppard," Rodney whispers. Sheppard shakes his head, then something catches his attention, turning with his gun already pointed, taking the shot like Rodney draws a breath. Leaning back into the tree, his eyes close briefly.
Rodney hears the click behind him--a safety, maybe from their own guns, maybe from one stolen from Teyla and Ronon before they escaped, if they escaped, if their bodies aren't piled somewhere on the other side of that gate where Rodney can't see. For a second, Rodney shuts his eyes and thinks of Teyla, thinks of the gun that's sliding from his fingers to the ground as he raises both hands, listening as the man approaches, John half-conscious against the tree, gun falling from one narrow hand.
He feels the brush of a knee against his back and looks up in time to see Sheppard stare at him with narrow, wary eyes. There's a lot of things he could say at this moment, so many, but he settles on one.
And he closes his eyes and thinks of Teyla's body, the smooth flow of movement and strength, reaches for the gun hand so conveniently close to his head, grasping slick wet skin and rough wool, and throws himself forward, forehead scraping on root bark while a shot buries itself where Sheppard's heart had been. The man's big body slams into the tree hard enough to make Rodney ache. Scrambling backward, Rodney finds his gun beneath his fingers and thinks of Sheppard, takes a shot that goes through the back of a man's head as easily as the bullet went through Sheppard's thigh.
He watches the body topple slowly sideways, Sheppard reaching to shove it away, the green eyes glassy but alert, filled with something Rodney can't name. Lowering the gun, Rodney drags in a breath that tastes like blood.
The gate goes out like a light, and Rodney lunges for Sheppard, hand covering the bleeding wound as a new wormhole dials in, lighting each chevron like a promise.
When liquid blue explodes across the event horizon, pouring Sheppard's illogical hope in Marine uniforms into the clearing, taking out hostile natives with each calm shot, Rodney touches John's face.
Hand slick with blood, he trails his fingers gently over paper skin, stubble, down the slim column of his throat, feeling cool, clammy skin with every stroke, and closes his eyes.
I believe you, he wants to say. I believe you. I believe you. I believe you.
He's forbidden entrance to the infirmary until he's slept, but he's as much a genius as McKay ever was, knows Atlantis like McKay didn't, learned it with John through endless nights in the labs, in their room, knows how to tell a computer that what it wants is what he wants, resetting security protocols and strolling in through the anterior access, watching the night shift nurse leave the quiet room that's housed Colonel Sheppard for the past six days.
Atlantis listens, opening the doors without a sigh, closing soundlessly behind him, repolarizing glass to block vision. A glance snaps down every lock that Rodney can think to find, and he circles the bed, the man small and too quiet, even for Sheppard, fragile and small, hooked up to machines that make noise he can't hope to interpret.
But they tell him the important things. Sheppard's alive, and Sheppard's breathing, and that's enough to make him sit, close his eyes, lean into the bed and smell disinfectant and bleach and God knows what else.
"Statistically, you're pretty close to fucked," Rodney says. "Barring a miracle or House coming by to miraculously discover some obscure injury that Ancient equipment didn't find the first eighty times they ran it over you. If I have to watch one more episode of that while Beckett tears up when the patient recovers, I'm going to kill him myself. Movie night under his supervision is going downhill. I've learned more about the chest cavity and obscure parasites than I ever wanted to know."
Sheppard doesn't move, one pale arm close enough to touch. Rodney does, because Sheppard's not awake, and Rodney needs to feel him more than Sheppard needs his distance. Thin fingers slide easily between his, callused the way John's never were, odd, hard spots, old scars that Rodney traces with his thumb, neatly filed nails from an overeager nurse, smooth beneath the pads of Rodney's fingers.
He thinks there are other things he wants to say--I'm sorry, he'd say, for not being better, being faster, being McKay, who probably would have known how to be more than a brace and an annoyance.. He wants to say, I hate you, but he can't even pretend that's true for the time it would take to say it. He wants to say, I can't lose you again, but the thing is, he can, he *could*, he could lose John Sheppard again and again and be left behind every time, lose a little more of himself, a painful piece at a time. He could be left in this strange-familiar world and no matter how many times it's hurt to see John in Sheppard's face, the thought of never seeing Sheppard again eats away at him like something living.
He wants to say, wake up, but he said that to John, and it didn't work, not for three days in a silent gateroom.
He closes his eyes and thinks of the cave, Sheppard's voice soft and sure. No one's left behind. "I believe you. Sheppard? Listen. I believe you."
So he sits, fingers laced through Sheppard's, head braced on the edge of the bed, and thinks that of all the things he's had to learn, he wants to stop learning how to lose.
When Rodney wakes up, Beckett's pulling him away and Teyla's arms are wrapped around him, catching air thick and solid in his lungs, Ronon on his other side. The bed is surrounded by people who make too much noise, lights and machines wailing in counterpoint to the frantic beat of his heart. Rodney can still feel the warmth of Sheppard's hand clinging to his skin.
I believe you, he thinks desperately.
"John," he says, but he means Sheppard, and Teyla's arms tighten, her cheek wet against his, Ronon's hand on his shoulder, too tight to escape. "Sheppard." Something claws up his chest, something dark that smells like rotting corpses in a gateroom a universe away, but Teyla pulls back, looking at hiim with damp eyes and a wide, shaky smile.
Beckett moves enough for Rodney to see the bed, a thin hand moving restlessly over the blanket, green eyes slitted open, pulling weakly at IV lines while a nurse gently pushes his hands away.
He thinks he can see Sheppard's laugh in the weak, slow smile, hazel eyes fixing on them from across the room. I was right, he thinks Sheppard says, without saying a word.
"I hate him," Rodney whispers, holding Sheppard's gaze. "His plans are stupid. I need something to eat."
Sheppard's smile widens, and Rodney remembers how to breathe again.
ETA: Edited to fix mistakes.